Friday, September 30, 2011

Speaking of Food. . . .

Food is vital to life, an art in itself, and a four letter word.  My personal relationship with food, through many ups and downs, has evolved from abusive to experimental over the past 30 years.  Read on if you dare, but consult your physician before trying anything blah blah yadda blah. . . .

I was a true string bean until second grade.  To choke down my home-grown vegetables was to earn a bowl of fruit and Jell-O soup.  I only thought about eating what was set before me, and refused some of that . . unless it flew toward my mouth making airplane noises-  playing Godzilla was irresistible.  It wasn't until after starting elementary school that I developed a less than healthy routine.

I would walk home from school every afternoon (nothing impressive, probably half a mile) and have an innocent little snack.  There wasn't much else to do in a town of 112 when most of its citizens are old enough to be your grandparents.  When the cookies and peanut butter were gone, I was bored again.  Time for another snack.  Somewhere between second and sixth grades I became unable to think straight without the chilly white fog from the refrigerator wafting across my cheeks.

I could get creative in the kitchen.  A pile of lunch meat on a plate with a thick slab of cheese in the middle would snap and crackle in the microwave as if applauding my gastrointestinal ingenuity.  Arby's had nothing on my cheese-melts.  Chips, more cookies, and I knew where the chocolate was hidden.

Mama would come home and fix dinner after resting her feet before hitting the kitchen.  The whole family usually sat down together for home-cooked meal around 8:00 or so. I would be anything but hungry after my indulgent snacking session, but I had to finish that meatloaf to justify ice cream.

Then one day I looked down and realized that I needed a bra worse than my little sister.  A chubby chest and chaffing hams scared the cherub into action.  I was 12 years old and spilling over my huskies at 220+ lbs. Something had to give.

Nothing displaces bad habits like good ones, but developing them can be an epic hurdle.  My turnaround began in the summer after seventh grade when I started riding my mountain bike out and back on a hilly 12-mile route every day.  After getting back to the house I would enjoy 4 graham crackers with peanut butter between the pairs, a tall glass of iced coffee, and an orange-  nothing more until dinner time.  Within two years I was down to 185lbs, not to mention considerably taller than I was at the height of my girth.

The lesson I'd learned in self-discipline was more valuable than going from a 40" to a 32" waist.  I managed to stay in reasonably good shape for the duration of my high school years, continuing my cycling in the summers. . . . then came college.

I have a theory regarding the legendary "freshman fifteen"- I believe it's more prevalent at colleges with cafeterias and all-you-can-eat meal plans.  The University of Texas at Tyler had only accepted juniors through graduates up until 1998.  I was part of the second freshman class starting there in 1999, and there was nothing for a freshman to do. . . or eat.  No cafeteria, no dorms-  just books and classrooms.  There was a small "Campus Cafe."  Recommending their biscuits and gravy was our only established hazing ritual.

The only form of student housing on campus was University Pines-   a students-only apartment complex located on campus, but not managed by the college.  I moved in with three guys I'd never met.   Two of them became really great friends, the other was a Dorito bandito.  Munching on stolen chips in his room, skipping classes to practice on his bass guitar-  he only lasted one semester.

We had good times at The Pines, but it didn't start out healthy.  My two friends and I would go to Wal-Mart together and shop for groceries, tossing what we wanted into the basket and then splitting the bill three ways.  That granted all of us the right to eat as we pleased from the spoils.  Our main staples for the first year were corny-dogs and Ramen noodles.  I was snarfing down two corny-dogs for lunch and three for dinner daily.  Burnout was inevitable.

By my junior year I had been working for University Pines as a Community Assistant in return for free rent and chump change.  I'd been compelled by my employer to leave my original roommates and move into a 2-bedroom apartment with another, more reserved, CA.  He ended up becoming one of my closest friends, but we didn't split the grocery bill, and he never cleaned the bathtub. . . . but I'm not bitter.

As a result of my new living arrangement, my foodstuffs became slightly more sophisticated.  I began cooking up Hamburger Helper and Zatarain's dirty rice mix fairly often, and making my own dagwood-style sandwiches on bread as exotic as pumpernickel, 7-grain, or Health Nut. (thank you, Mama, for weaning me from Wonderbread)

Graduation rolled around, and all of a sudden I was dumped into the real-world.  A single guy in his early 20's, far from the bustling social scene of the college campus, has a lot of quiet time on his hands to think about life, love, and his next meal.  I began to wonder why I continued to buy boxes full of pasta and chemically enriched powders-  surely I could save money and avoid eating things I couldn't pronounce just by purchasing the ingredients separately!

Soon I was cooking up one-dish-wonders from scratch, usually starting with a base of brown rice, black olives, mushrooms, a can or two of Rotel, and any combination of chicken, beef, ground turkey, jalapeño peppers, and beans.  One kitchen session could produce dinner for a week when I alternated between monster salads and my southern goulash.

With few obligations aside from work and church, I began to focus on fitness in my free time- partly to pad my loneliness and partly with the misguided notion that my envisioned ripples would help put an end to it.  As one who functions best with a set of rules to follow, I began researching.

I'd often scoffed at fad diets, having friends known to try three different programs (Weight-Watchers, Slim-Fast, Atkins) within the same 6-month period with little to show for their effort.  I diagnosed it as Chronic Dietitus, and still believe it to be an American epidemic.  I could rant on about how there's a diet for every taste out there.  At a garage sale I once found a book called The Peanut Butter Diet.  I almost bought it for laughs, but refrained out of fear I would actually try it.

God made me a very curious creature.  There are so many schools of thought out there on the most ethical, and healthiest ways to eat.  After watching documentaries like King Corn, Food Inc., Supersize Me, FatHead (recommended), The Botany of Desire, Julie &; Julia, and Forks Over Knives; reading books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Zone; and some really interesting blogs that I'll get to later, I have put a number of ideas to the test.

I think one reason I enjoy trying different nutritional disciplines is because clearly defined guidelines regarding when or what I consume are a challenging exercise in self-discipline and inspire me to become more creative with my limited options.  I've come up with my own challenges- like abstaining from French fries or carbonated soft drinks for a year, and subjected myself to various comprehensive approaches to food.

Going from vegetarian to bacon buff at the drop of a hat was a lot easier before I had a wonderful wife cooking for me.  I never ask her to be a mouse for my trials, but my own rotating restrictions frustrate the cook none-the-less.

The good news (for both of us) is that after researching and approaching nutrition from so many different angles, I'm beginning to get a firm understanding of the common denominators that the most healthy and effective exercise and nutrition programs share- sometimes even when the camps seem diametrically opposed.  In my next post I'll share my take on different schools of thought, what I've tried, and what I've gleaned from first-hand experiences ranging from mainstream to quite exotic!

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